70 year old professor retires and closes lab, PETA claims victory

The retirement of a highly respected senior neuroscientist at the center of a sustained recent publicity campaign by an animal rights group generated a victory claim on Friday when PETA realized that their target had retired. The retirement came after a productive and award-winning 40 year research and teaching career. University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscience Professor Tom Yin’s research led to breakthroughs in understanding how the brain processes and localizes sounds. The highly cited research was continuously funded by the US National Institutes of Health because it contributed fundamentally important new knowledge that is the necessary building block for advances in medicine and science that involves hearing. We have written about Professor Yin’s research previously, for more information see here, here, here.

Yin’s sound localization research was the target of a sustained and multi-dimensional attack by PETA over the past three years. The campaign had provided rich opportunities for stunts, attracted celebrities, generated media attention, and undoubtedly brought in many donors for animal rights groups.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The scientist’s retirement is unlikely to provide obstacles to PETA’s continued success in using the research for fundraising appeals, as was indicated by the group’s immediate response. Despite the obvious fact that the retirement of a 70 year old scientist is expected, rather than unusual, PETA promptly claimed responsibility and announced that they had secured a victorious end to their campaign.

PETA’s tactic may well serve as a model to other groups because it offers a solid opportunity to claim effectiveness of their campaigns. If so, we might expect to see other scientists seemingly within the realm of retirement age appear as targets of major campaigns that involve bus ads, celebrities, and stunts that misrepresent the research. (Or perhaps they could simply claim all retired scientists did so not as a result of age, or the natural conclusion of long and productive careers, but rather in response to campaigns by those opposed to the research.)

Despite the scientist’s retirement and the lab closing, it seems unlikely that PETA will retire the photos of research animals and misleading claims about Yin’s work that were the center of PETA’s campaign. It is more likely that the campaign will continue to be used by PETA to attract attention and donors, with the promise of more victories in ending research.

PETA also took a page from other animal rights groups that claim credit for the retirement of research animals, despite the fact that it is the scientists and research institutions that find adoptive homes and retire the animals. Like many research institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds adoptive homes for animals that are no longer in research and whose care and safety can be assured in a home setting. In this case, four of the five cats that were part of Professor Yin’s research were retired into private homes. This is in stark contrast to the PETA policy at its Norfolk, VA shelter of killing on average 2000 dogs and cats per year (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/peta-finds-itself-on-receiving-end-of-others-anger.html)

The university, like other research facilities, does not use those adoptions as a vehicle for media attention. By contrast, retired research animals are often featured as centerpieces in fundraising campaigns by animal rights groups. We have written about this previously in the context of a controversial campaign by Beagle Freedom, in which the animal rights group appropriates credit for research facilities’ successful adoption programs. In general, the focus of the adoption programs is on successfully placing the animals. Even the NIH and federal government, while providing over $30 million for retirement of research chimpanzees and committed to tens of millions more for their lifetime support, do so without sustained high-profile media campaigns. Similarly there are rarely press releases from the UW-Madison announcing the animal adoptions or the lab closing due to the scientist’s retirement.

PETA seized the opportunity for their own press release and claim of victory after they realized what had happened. How did they find out? Simply by reading the records that the university regularly sends to PETA and other animal rights groups in response to their regular open records requests. PETA was no doubt pleased by their discovery. Not only could they claim victory for the retirement of the 70 year old scientist, they could also continue to claim PETA themselves were responsible for the research animals’ retirement.

The victory claim is PETA’s central rationale for continued used of the images and claims that were at the center of their campaign. There is little doubt that they will not be retired; rather they are likely to be used for a long time to convey the impression of a success. The question is whether those who hear the victory claim might wonder whether there is anything surprising about the retirement of a 70 year old scientist. Others might be curious enough to learn more about the remarkable accomplishments of that scientist over his 40 year career (see here for more information). In light of current campaigns against other scientists, the question will also become whether PETA has highlighted a new path that paves the way for higher likelihood of being able to claim an unearned victory.


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